Gentle Giants: Whale Watching in Baja California Sur’s Magdalena Bay

LEADbajaOne Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin.” William ShakespeareI am leaning over the side of a 25-foot (7.6 m) wooden panga, or dinghy, in Magdalena Bay, on the Pacific Coast of the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, peering through the clear, blue green water. A huge creature is swimming directly below me, nudging the sides of the small boat, causing it to rock back and forth. My head is filled with a duet of apprehension and excitement. It reaches a crescendo when a loud “whoosh” pierces the air. A gray whale, the size of a school bus, shoots out of the water, plops down by my side of the boat and skims the water’s surface.

Jorgé, my guide, is a former fisherman from Puerto Adolfo López Mateo, a village on the edge of Magdalena Bay. When over-fishing destroyed the livelihood of Jorgé and other fishermen in the area, they recycled themselves as panga operators and whale-watching tour guides. The hard life of a fisherman is etched on his creased, craggy face, making him look older than his 43 years. Jorgé is shouting, telling me, “Touch it! Touch the whale when it comes up, it will be good luck.” I’m not so sure.

Sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortéz, the Baja California peninsula comprised by the two Mexican states of Baja California and Baja California Sur stretches 1,100 miles (1,700 km) from its northern end touching California, to Cabos San Lucas at its southern end. It is a rugged land of contrasts. Dusk-colored mountains loom over a sun-lit desert that is filled with cacti, deep canyons and steep-sided gullies. Cardón cacti, two stories high, stand at attention like sentinels guarding the land. Cholla cacti with their arms intertwined share the landscape with prickly pear and organ pipe cacti.

La Paz (the Peace), the capital of Baja California Sur, sits on a bay at the Sea of Cortéz. As a gateway to over 50 uninhabited coastal islands of the Sea of Cortéz, as well as the many whale-watching activities in Magdalena Bay, San Ignacio, Scammon’s Lagoon and Guerrrero Negro, La Paz pulses with activity.

Its mile-long, wrap-around waterfront is dotted with tour operators, souvenir shops and restaurants. In the 1600’s, La Paz was a pearl divers’ mecca, famous for its creamy, translucent pearls. But, disease and over-harvesting ravished the once fertile oyster beds and by the late 1930’s, La Paz’s pearl industry was over. Now, it is a mecca for fishing and tourism.

Jorgé is speeding across the narrow Boco del Soledad channel and we come into a lagoon that is so flat and still, I think I could skate on it. Ripples from our panga lap onto the dense, gnarled mangroves that fringe the shoreline. As we approach Magdalena Bay, the “Chesapeake of the Pacific,” the mangroves give way to golden stretches of sun-gilded sand dunes. Through my binoculars, I spy three coyotes walking slowly along the sandy, isolated shore, eyeing us with interest.

Magdalena Bay is a hangout for gray whales. Imagine swimming over 4,000 miles (6,500 km) to get to your vacation spot. That’s what gray whales do each year, leaving their feeding grounds near Alaska, dodging tankers, trash and fishing nets along the way. Just like college students on spring break they come here for food, fun and games. Others loll about in the warm, protected lagoons of Guerrero Negro, Scammon and San Ignacio. In the spring, the whales trek back north.

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